I enjoy pursuing whitetails during the comfortable days of autumn, when a cloak of golden leaves dangles overhead and daytime temperatures seldom dip below the zero mark. But, oddly enough, I also look forward to the late season, when icebox temperatures push downward from northern Canada and even the geese have departed for warmer climes.
In most Midwestern states, when the last rifle or shotgun season ends, hunting pressure drops off quicker than the 2008 stock market. Combine that with cold weather and a shortage of food, and the deer become more predictable. That’s when the odds start stacking in our favor.
If you can come to grips with the foul weather, frigid temperatures and a spooky deer herd, you’ll stand a good chance of shooting a trophy buck during the late season. Following are a few tips that will help you prepare for the inevitable.
By the time the late season arrives, the deer have seen hunters invading their space for two or three months. As a result, they’re downright skittish and most have altered their behavior to minimize their susceptibility to encounters of the human kind. For the most part, late-season deer are nocturnal creatures, spending the daylight hours in thick security cover and feed under the cover of darkness.
It might take a week or more, but eventually the effects of minimal hunting pressure bring the deer out of their hiding spots. Some bucks will resort back to similar travel routines and patterns they used before the season began. The funnels, rub lines and travel corridors you hunted during the pre-rut and rut once again show signs of renewed activity.
FIND FOOD, FIND DEER
When the mercury drops like a rock, deer go into survival mode in preparation for a decrease in metabolism and the grips of Ol’ Man Winter. Combine two months of chasing and breeding with the strain of dodging countless hunters, and the deer are understandably worn down. By the time the late season arrives, deer need to regenerate their spent fat reserves. That means refueling with large amounts of food, even at the expense of security by feeding during daylight hours.
Finding deer in the late season isn’t that tough if you can find a primary food source. The old saying “find the food, find the deer” couldn’t be more true during the late season. In the absence of deep snow, deer will find fields with adequate free grain left from harvest. However, when deep snow and ice prevent them from finding enough food on nearby fields, they’ll travel longer distances to find it. If you have the only standing food source within a mile or more, rest assured you’ll be pulling deer off the neighboring properties too.
A couple years ago, my wife, Pamela, and I hunted during the late muzzleloader season in Iowa with Andy Timmerman and Travis Paul of A&A Outfitting. A few days before our departure, a blizzard swept across the state and daytime temperatures hadn’t climbed much above zero. Upon arriving in Corning, we found two feet of snow on the ground and some roads were completely drifted shut.
Pam hunted all week without seeing a good buck. On New Year’s Eve, which was the final day of our hunt, Andy mentioned seeing a big 8-pointer while harvesting a nearby piece of ground. That particular farm hadn’t been hunted much and a ton of deer had been bedding in a CRP field during the day. By afternoon, they were making the transition toward 20 acres of standing corn on the neighboring property. If there was ever a piece of ground that begged to be hunted, this was it. That morning, Andy took a ground blind in with a snowmobile and set up within range of the trails coming out of the CRP.
The wind that afternoon was northwesterly at 20 mph and gusting to 40. The temperature hovered at minus-13 degrees, without the wind chill factor.
I dropped Pam off around 3 p.m. and watched while she made her way across the frozen field toward the blind 300 yards away. That might not seem like a long walk to your blind, but the 5-foot drifts on the terraces and frigid temperatures made it tough to say the least. On three occasions she sunk waist-deep into a snow drift, but managed to belly crawl out and continue on. When she was out of sight, I headed back to town to start packing.
I hadn’t been gone more than a half hour when my cell phone rang. It was Pam, and the first thing I heard was, “BBD, baby!”
“You’re kidding, right?” I said.
“No, I’m not!” Pam said excitedly. “I had just gotten situated in the blind when this 10-pointer came walking out of the CRP field and headed toward the standing corn. I was contemplating whether to shoot when a big 8-point suddenly appeared on the same trail.
“The smaller buck passed by, but when he reached the tracks from the snowmobile, he came to a sudden stop and started acting nervous. The bigger buck caught on to that and started to veer away. Fortunately, he paused just long enough for me to find the vitals in the scope and squeeze off. Instantly, his front legs folded and he started plowing snow.
“He only went maybe 75 yards. It was awesome, and I wish you had been here to see it.”
Pam’s deer was a classic example of how late-season food sources can be magnets for deer.
WATCH THE BAROMETER
After four decades of hunting whitetails, I’ve learned enough to know that the weather has a definite effect on when deer feed. Sustained cold forces deer to feed to survive, but when the barometer starts dropping and heavy snow or ice threatens to cover their primary food source, their internal “need-to-feed” mechanism kicks into overdrive.
Past experience has proven that deer feed heavily as a storm approaches and the barometric pressure drops and again shortly after it moves through and the pressure begins to rise again. Being on-stand two hours before and after a storm moves through can pay off big time. This happened to be the case for my friend, Andy, on the last evening of the 2010 season.
Andy had been hunting a soybean field most the week but hadn’t laid eyes on the buck he was after. A storm front was expected to move in before nightfall, so he headed to the stand a bit early. Not long after arriving, a few deer began filtering into the field. It started snowing shortly after, and the deer just kept coming. In the final minutes of shooting light the big 10-pointer stepped into the field. He never knew what hit him.